Use of original papers requires an appointment and is limited to the Archives' Washington, D.C., Research Center.
The papers of social realist painter, photographer, illustrator, printmaker, and teacher Ben Shahn (1898-1969) measure 24.6 linear feet and date from 1879-1990, with the bulk of the material dating from 1933-1970. The bulk of the collection consists of over 14 linear feet of incoming letters from artists, writers, colleagues, publishers, art organizations, galleries, and universities and colleges. Also found are biographical materials, project and source files, printed material, artwork by Shahn and others, photographs taken of and by Shahn, interview transcripts, and audio and video recordings.
Biographical material and family records include a 1924 passport for Shahn and his first wife, Tillie, biographical sketches of Shahn, and award certificates received by him.
Letters are primarily written to Shahn from family members, artists, writers, colleagues, publishers, art organizations, galleries, and universities and colleges. Notable correspondents include Leonard Baskin, Alexander Calder, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Joseph Hirsch, Leo Lionni, John Bartlow Martin, George and Marian Nakashima, Clifford Odets, Charles Olson, Robert Osborn, Diego Rivera, Jerome Robbins, Selden Rodman, James Thrall Soby, Raphael Soyer, and William Carlos Williams. A small number of scattered letters from Shahn can also be found throughout the series.
Project files document approximately twenty-one of Shahn's commissions, including murals for the community center at Jersey Homesteads, the Bronx Central Annex Post Office, the Social Security Building in Washington D.C., and the William E. Grady Vocational High School. The files also document his involvement in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Roosevelt, in addition to projects for schools, temples, and private homes.
Financial and legal records include consignment records, loan agreements, royalty statements and receipts for artwork sold.
Notes and writings are by Shahn and others including Alan Dugan, W. H. Ferry, Theodore Gusten, and John Bartlow Martin. They include lists of artwork, many of which are annotated.
Artwork includes a sketchbook and several unbound sketches and lettering by Shahn, in addition to drawings and prints by others including Shahn's children, Mario Casetta and Stefan Martin.
Source files contain printed material and photographs relating to topics depicted by Shahn in his artwork such as children, dams, farming, houses, industry, mines and miners, slums, war, and workers. These files also contain scattered photographic prints by FSA and OWI photographers including Shahn, Jack Delano, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Carl Mydans, Marion Post Wolcott, Arthur Rothstein, and John Vachon.
Printed material includes news clippings covering Shahn and his career as well as subjects of interest to Shahn. Also found are exhibition catalogs and announcements for exhibitions for Shahn and others, and reproductions of Shahn's artwork including publications illustrated by him.
Photographs are of Shahn, his family and friends and colleagues including Alexander Calder, Jerome Robbins, Charles Sheeler, David Smith and William Zorach. Also included are photographs taken by Shahn of New York City and for the FSA in the 1930s, as well as photographs of artwork by Shahn. Photographs by others include one photo each by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee and Arthur Rothstein.
The collection also contains transcripts of eight radio, television and motion picture interviews of Shahn and a reel of 16mm motion picture film transferred to VHS from the BBC-TV program "Monitor," in addition to three reels of audio tape interviews of Shahn by Tony Schwartz and Arlene Francis. Artifacts include a Christmas greeting in the form of a sock.
Ben Shahn papers, 1879-1990, bulk 1933-1970. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
The bulk of the collection was digitized in 2011 and is available via the Archives of American Art's website.
Location of Originals:
Reel N70-6: Originals returned to lender, Bernarda Bryson Shahn, after microfilming.
Funding for the preservation and transfer of motion picture film provided by the Smithsonian Women's Committee. Funding for the processing and digitization of this collection was provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art
In 1969, Bernarda Bryson Shahn loaned addresses and essays by Shahn, 7 royalty statements, and 3 letters from publishers for microfilming. After filming, the material was returned to the donor. The loaned material is available on 35 mm microfilm reel N70-6 at Archives of American Art offices and through interlibrary loan, which is not described in the container list of this finding aid. However, many of Shahn's writings on this microfilm were included in subsequent donations to the Archives of American Art.
The Archives of American Art holds four oral history interviews with Ben Shahn: 1964 April 14 interview conducted by Richard K. Doud for the Archives of American Art New Deal and the Arts Project in which Shahn speaks of his travels and work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and the American image as portrayed by FSA; 1965 January 17 interview; 1965 October 3 interview conducted by Harlan Phillips for the Archives of American Art New Deal and the Arts Project; and 1968 September 27 interview conducted by Forrest Selvig. Most of these interviews have transcripts available online.
The Archives also holds the Bernarda Bryson Shahn papers, circa 1947-2005, and two oral history interviews with Bernarda Bryson Shahn: 1983 April 29 and 1995 July 3.
Ben Shahn (1898-1969) was a painter, printmaker, and photographer who worked primarily in Brooklyn, N.Y. and New Jersey. Shahn immigrated from Lithuania to the United States in 1906. He apprenticed as a lithographer, 1913-1917, and studied at the National Academy of Design from 1919 to 1922. He had his first solo exhibition at the Downtown Gallery in 1930. Shahn took photographs of rural areas for the Farm Security Administration between 1935 and 1938. During the 1940s, he made posters for the Office of War Information.
107 letters are in French.
36 letters are in Italian.
The Ben Shahn papers were donated in several installments between 1967-1991 by Shahn's widow, Bernarda Bryson Shahn.
This site provides access to the papers of Ben Shahn in the Archives of American Art that were digitized in 2010. The papers have been scanned in their entirety, and total 41,803 images.
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 750 9th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20001